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The Washington Post May 11, 2005

Calif. Towns Lobby To Stop Base Closing

Officials Highlight Area's Usefulness

By Kimberly Edds and Amy Argetsinger, Washington Post Staff Writers

YUBA CITY, Calif., May 10 -- If the Air Force closes its 63-year-old base in this sprawling valley of peach orchards and cow pastures, the effect will be nothing less than catastrophic, local officials insist: 6,000 military residents would leave homes here, and more than 2,000 civilian jobs would disappear. Businesses would lose many of their customers, and five public schools would probably have to close. In all, a $1.2 billion loss to the economies of eight counties.

Yet none of that, ultimately, will matter to Pentagon analysts deciding this week which of the nation's 3,700 military installations to recommend for cost-saving closures. So in its impassioned campaign to keep Beale Air Force Base off the list, local organizers instead mounted a lobbying effort that markets the merits of the base to its own chiefs back in Washington -- the wide-open spaces free of flight restrictions, the prime location for monitoring missiles over the Pacific, the warm support of military-friendly neighbors.

A campaign, in other words, that is less about how much they need the Air Force than how much the Air Force needs Beale.

"We may be small, but we're the mouse that roars," said Tim Johnson, executive director of the Yuba-Sutter Economic Development Corp., "and we're going to tell the government that we play a significant role in the Department of Defense."

For communities across the nation, years of feverish booster efforts are coming to a head this week as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld prepares to release the first new list of recommended base cuts and restructurings in a decade.

From pep rallies in Columbus, Ohio, to letter-writing campaigns out of Kittery, Maine, communities have labored to make the case that their bases should be the ones the Pentagon relies on in its leaner years to come. In some cases, state and local governments have gone out of their way to make the surroundings nicer for military populations -- improving roads around bases, extending tuition benefits or discounting utilities for people in uniform.

Maryland officials, concerned about the fate of Patuxent River Naval Air Station and Indian Head Division, passed a bill to make housing on its 11 major bases tax-free. Virginia legislators recently approved laws offering better life insurance coverage for military employees and economic development incentives for base expansion as state leaders closely monitor Forts Eustis and Monroe and Oceana Naval Air Station and the heavy concentration of defense leased office space in Northern Virginia.

Many communities have hired lobbyists to help make their case.

Much of the frenzy stems from the fact that, compared with four rounds of base closures in 1988 through 1995, many community leaders and analysts say there are no obvious patterns in military restructuring to indicate which locales are most at risk.

And while political pleading -- occasionally on behalf of the economically neediest communities -- sometimes played a part in earlier decisions, this year's process has been designed to give more priority to global military needs than home-town concerns. Rumsfeld's recommendations must be approved first by a bipartisan Base Realignment and Closure Commission, then by President Bush and Congress; however, in past years, the bases singled out in the initial Pentagon list have generally sustained the recommended cuts.

"It's not based on jobs, nor should it be," said Jack Spencer, a senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation. "It's what's best for the nation's security moving forward."

In California, which has lost 29 bases since closings began 17 years ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) appointed a special committee to coordinate lobbying efforts across the state.

"What you're seeing is a much more aggressive effort to maintain these bases," said Leon E. Panetta, the former Democratic congressman and White House chief of staff who co-chairs the committee. "You have to make the argument that these are very valuable military assets, and if you close them you lose something that can't be replicated anywhere else."

For the Yuba City area -- whose 11 percent unemployment rate actually marks a great improvement over a few years ago -- keeping Beale became a major crusade.

Two years ago a plucky coalition of elected officials and business leaders from across Yuba and Sutter counties began meeting monthly to plan their attack. Volunteers raised private dollars -- about $60,000 short of their $190,000 goal, as it turned out -- to finance the effort.

The group lobbied county officials to fix the pothole-scarred roads around the base, winning more than $4.5 million in improvements. And they took their message to Washington.

The first meetings were discouraging, said Yuba County Supervisor Hal Stocker, one of several officials who made the trip in lieu of hiring expensive lobbyists. After five minutes with the Beale delegation, a Pentagon official stopped them short, saying every community had the same story, Stocker recalled.

So they learned to hone their message. Among their talking points: the unique geographic setting in a corner of the state that is still largely undeveloped, leaving plenty of space for the military to pursue classified projects; a runway that is the second largest in California and the only one authorized by the FAA for unmanned aircraft.

Local officials even led a successful lobbying campaign to encourage the Air Force to send its squadron of Global Hawk reconnaissance drones to Beale. When the first arrived at the base last October, the community held a week-long welcoming celebration.

While such homespun efforts may seem hokey, analysts say they could make a difference. "Base commanders don't want to be somewhere where they're going to spend the next two years with the Chamber of Commerce chewing them out," said John Pike, director of the Washington-based defense policy research group GlobalSecurity.org -- they want the promise of easy relations with the surrounding community.

For now, though, Beale neighbors know they can only wait for the announcement of a decision that is likely already made.

"At least we can look ourselves in the face and say at least we cared," said Doug Sloan, general manager of Yuba-Sutter Disposal Inc. and a member of the committee fighting to save the base. "At least we showed we cared."

Argetsinger reported from Los Angeles. Staff writers Ann Scott Tyson and Spencer S. Hsu in Washington contributed to this report.

 


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